The Christmas Tree Casino

In 1946, John and Alice Ross built the Christmas Tree casino way up near the top of Mount Rose with spectacular views leading down to Washoe Valley. In 1947 the couple added a restaurant with the help of a hand-shake $10,000 loan from Nick Abelman who drove past their joint every morning and every evening as he traveled from his home in Reno to his Stateline Country Club casino at South Shore.

To increase the small club’s income, Reno gambler Virgil Smith, fresh from bankrolling Bill Harrah’s blackout bar in Reno, opened a roulette wheel and a 21 table. Smith hired the dealers, managed the tables, and paid a $25 daily fee. At the end of each month, he also paid John and Alice 10% juice on his overall win at the tables.

The games opened at 5pm and players could gamble until well after 2am every night or until the crowd went home. The starting limit on slow days was 25-cents, but a $1 blackjack minimum was customary during the summer. Unless the club had a lucky visit from George Whittel or another Tahoe millionaire, the maximum wagers were set at $10.

As chronicled in Mob City: Reno, Nick Abelman took over the gaming concession the following year after selling his State Line Country Club casino at South Shore. His wife, June, handled the accounting for the gaming as well as the restaurant and bar.

The property became known as a friendly watering hole and the place to get mahogany broiled steaks when Guy Michael and Art Fisher took over management. In 1957 the club issued two sets of iconic casino chips with the Christmas Tree logo, crest and seal roulette chips, and horseshoe-rim chips made by Reno’s TK Specialty for the other table games.

In 1959, the Gaming Control Board closed the property after a 21 dealer was accused of cheating by rolling the deck to deal off the bottom. Several gaming operators like Bob Peccole leased the property over the years. Guy Michael and Art Fisher were the licenses in 1966 when the Gaming Control Board shut the property down again, this time because loaded dice were being used at the craps game.

While shuttered in 1967 the Christmas Tree was destroyed by fire, but Guy Michael sold the business and property to Al KuckHoff who rebuilt it for a new host of casino operators. Some of those operators included Reno Menicucci, Ken Clever, and Peter Apostolos. In 1972 the property was closed and remained that way until reopened by Gloria Michael in 1976. Other gaming operators were Don Gilfillian, and David and Mary Ellen Houston, who owned the property before it returned to its roots by once again operating as a bar and restaurant only.

Today, gamblers have to make it all the way into Incline Village or Carnelian Bay to gamble at Lake Tahoe, but more than anything, old-time Reno travelers miss the hospitality at the Christmas Tree bar and the mahogany broiled steaks the restaurant served on a daily basis.

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